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"[T]his contribution first expands on our notion ‘the Big Tech bang’, through which we analyze the historical rise of Big Tech and its role in shaping an emerging socio-technical system. Second, we move to the present and expand on the features of what we call ‘the Big Tech model’, which is based on generating network effects to facilitate rent extraction, and through which we understand the mounting power of Big Tech [...] Third, ceteris paribus, we anticipate the future by elaborating on what we call ‘the Big Techification of everything’, a scenario whereby Big Tech not only comes to rewire economy and society, but also enmeshes itself evermore closely with the state, effectively becoming the sun in the new socio-technical solar system"
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Accepted version. Please cite as:
Hendrikse R, Adriaans I, Klinge TJ and Fernandez (2021) The Big Techification of Everything. Science
as Culture. [].
The Big Techification of Everything
Reijer Hendrikse1, Ilke Adriaans2, Tobias J. Klinge3, and Rodrigo Fernandez2,4
1 Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
2 Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3 KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
4 Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Corresponding author:
Keywords: Big Tech; capitalism; digital platforms; information and communication technology; science
and technology studies; socio-technical systems.
A few months into the pandemic, Naomi Klein (2020) noted how a tech-driven ‘Pandemic Shock
Doctrine’ was shaping up under conditions of lockdown and social distancing. In the US, Microsoft
founder Bill Gates and former Google executive Eric Schmidt were invited by New York governor
Andrew Cuomo to discuss the digitization of state functions in order to tackle the corona crisis. In the
UK, Big Tech companies were invited to Downing Street to discuss the solutions required to overcome
Covid-19 (Volpicelli 2020), seeing the surveillance giant Palantir earn lucrative contracts to streamline
data flows across the state. Meanwhile, ministers from France and Germany lauded the launch of cloud
computing strategy Gaia-X, which was designed to enhance ‘digital sovereignty’ across the European
Union, but which in reality gave front row seats to the usual American Big Techs (Fermigier and Franck
Today a handful of Big Tech platforms form ‘the infrastructural core’ of increasingly digitized
economies and societies (Van Dijck et al. 2018: 12), operating as obligatory passage points for social
exchange colonizing professional and private lives, monopolizing flows of information and
communication. In the latter case, the platforms that abetted the rise of the far right in the U.S. in 2016
joined forces to banish Donald Trump from the digitized public sphere after inciting violence in
Washington DC in 2020. While there are legitimate arguments for Big Techs to counter imminent
political violence, these actions illustrate the mounting unchecked power these companies wield over
social life.
Although there are exceptions (e.g. Birch and Muniesa 2020; Birch and Cochrane 2021), the field of
science and technology studies (STS) exhibits some lacunae in engaging with Big Tech as the core
lubricant of contemporary capitalism, which we seek to remedy. This paper builds off of a recent report
(Fernandez et al. 2020), wherein we investigated the financial accounts of the world’s seven largest
digital technology companies, and analyzed how their respective monopoly positions are augmented and
exploited through their financial operations, i.e. corporate financialization.
Furthermore, we tried to
historicize, conceptualize and theorize the popular notion ‘Big Tech’, which features more prominently in
consultancy and journalistic circles rather than in academia.
In this contribution, we analyze the past, present and future of Big Tech, and frame its ascendancy as a
socio-technical transition, with a handful of Big Tech companies progressively becoming the
infrastructural core of a new socio-technical system anchored in digital technologies, progressively
reshaping economy and society (Geels 2002, 2004; Fuenfschilling and Truffer 2016). In sketching the
macro contours of this transition-cum-system, we seek to contribute towards a more academic
understanding of Big Tech. Illuminating how technological change impacts the material artefacts
structuring social life, gradually giving rise to path-dependent processes of institutional change, studies on
socio-technical transitions and systems build on insights from STS, and here we seek to illuminate how
Big Tech has ‘disrupted’ and transformed various dimensions/material aspects undergirding social life
not only including science and technology, but also economics, politics and culture (e.g. Araujo and
Harrison 2002; David 1994; Freeman and Louça 2001).
The remainder of this contribution first expands on our notion ‘the Big Tech bang’, through which we
analyze the historical rise of Big Tech and its role in shaping an emerging socio-technical system. Second,
we move to the present and expand on the features of what we call ‘the Big Tech model’, which is based
on generating network effects to facilitate rent extraction, and through which we understand the mounting
power of Big Tech. As argued by Birch and Cochrane, STS and related fields emphasize the construction
of economic rents how they are made rather than treating rents as the distortion of a naturalized
competitive market’ (2021: 2-3). Third, ceteris paribus, we anticipate the future by elaborating on what
we call ‘the Big Techification of everything’, a scenario whereby Big Tech not only comes to rewire
economy and society, but also enmeshes itself evermore closely with the state, effectively becoming the
sun in the new socio-technical solar system.
Past: The Big Tech Bang
The history of modern capitalism is often narrated through cycles or waves, which are characterized by
investment booms in a set of new technological innovations (see Rostow 1975 for an overview), giving
rise to novel socio-technical transitions and systems. The late nineteenth century, for example, saw
massive investments in US railroads and the rise of monopolies in banking, oil and steel (Lamoreaux
2019). This development saw the so-called ‘Robber Barons’ – including John P. Morgan, John D.
Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie accumulate unprecedented wealth in what has become known as ‘the
Gilded Age’ (Wu 2018). In contrast, the late twentieth century gave birth to another set of innovations,
this time clustered around an emerging information and communication technology (ICT) industry. These
developments progressively ignited a new wave of monopoly capitalism, giving rise to twenty-first-
century ‘Big Tech Barons’ such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. The financial firepower of the captains of
what might called ‘the New Gilded Age’ increasingly rivals that of their nineteenth-century predecessors.
Inspired by the work of Carlota Perez (2010), Figure 1 seeks to encapsulate the dawn and evolution of the
ICT wave, qualifying our focus on seven key Big Tech companies (Fernandez et al. 2020: 8). We
subdivide this ICT wave into stylized periods of tech diffusion: the first is the installation period,
heralding the ICT-driven socio-technical transition, with hard- and software developments within the tech
sector, followed by a deployment period based on the data-driven ‘platformization’ of capitalism (Langley
and Leyshon 2017; Plantin et al. 2018) beyond the tech sector seeing the socio-technical transition
become a system on its own, by redefining how people and technology interact, and thereby transforming
the operating logics undergirding economy and society.
Big Tech’s installation period is subdivided in three phases. First, the 1970s are characterized by
hardware developments, led by IBM as the dominant company, and with the 1971 invention of Intel’s
microprocessor foreshadowing the advent of personal computers (PCs) replacing IBM’s expensive
business machines. Two of our seven Big Tech companies were established during this era (Apple,
Microsoft). Second, during the 1980s going into the 1990s, the orientation in ICT development shifted
towards software interoperability, with Microsoft taking over from IBM as the dominant company. Third,
the 1990s rollout of the internet heralded the age of digital platforms, giving rise to the other five Big
Tech companies (Alibaba, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Facebook, Tencent), constituting a ‘Big Tech
Bang’, whilst the more mature tech giants Apple and Microsoft steadily reinvented themselves as digital
Figure 1: The Big Tech Bang (source: Fernandez et al. 2020: 13)
With the installation of our seven Big Tech companies completed around the new millennium, political
and economic developments like the dotcom crash and 9/11 brought forth the age of ‘surveillance
capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019), igniting Big Tech’s subsequent deployment period, expanding its reach
throughout economy and society. Amongst others, Apple’s iPhone massively expanded the scale and
scope for data extraction, as PCs effectively morphed into mobile smartphones, boosting global
connectivity and allowing for the development of personalized applications, with mounting volumes of
data stored into expanding cloud infrastructures. As Big Tech turned into ‘the infrastructural core’ (Van
Dijck et al. 2018: 12) it is today, myriad digital platforms offering consumer services developed around it
(Blanke and Pybus 2020), such as Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify and Uber, igniting novel cultures under the
rampant rollout of a new socio-technical system, whilst other sectors rapidly embraced the promises of
digitization, including the world of haute finance (Hendrikse et al. 2018).
The rise of Big Tech cannot be understood without examining the wider macro-economic and monetary
context. In response to the financial crisis of 2008, for example, central banks embarked on a massive
expansion of their balance sheets. By purchasing financial assets such as government bonds with newly
created money, however, they drove up prices and hence put pressure on asset yields elsewhere. As a
result, shares in Big Tech companies became a safe haven for investors. This trend was strengthened with
the corona pandemic in 2020, driving market valuations to unprecedented highs. Furthermore, these
companies could make use of the financial environment by accumulating stocks of financial assets in
response to profits outgrowing productive investments, seeing the financial assets of the seven Big Tech
companies’ approach US$700 billion in 2020. Moreover, monetary policies also fueled an increase in
corporate debt. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it was not struggling companies availing themselves of this
exceptional degree of liquidity. Instead, it was the world’s most-profitable and best-capitalized Big Tech
companies, who then leveraged their valuations by taking on more debt. As a result, their total debt
increased from virtually nothing in 2010 to almost US$320 billion in 2020. As will be discussed in more
detail below, by flexing their unrivaled financial muscle, Big Techs have massively expanded their
operations and kept competitors at bay.
Geopolitically, another defining phenomenon shaping the global rise of the digital socio-technical system
is the emergence of Chinese Big Tech companies. This has been spearheaded by Alibaba and Tencent,
followed by e the likes of Huawei and Baidu, which have combined technological expansion with rapid
societal deployment under strict state control (Gruin 2019). Having been nurtured by US investors (Jia
2018), these Chinese companies are increasingly challenging Silicon Valley in domains like artificial
intelligence (AI) and financial technology (FinTech), resulting in mounting political and economic strife
across the globe (Sharma 2020; Tanda and Schena 2019; Webb 2019). In all, these developments have
propelled Big Tech’s power as we know it today. In the next section we outline and expand upon these
joint features in what we call ‘the Big Tech model’.
Present: The Big Tech Model
While the individual business activities of the world’s major Big Tech companies differ extensively –
whether digitizing professional working environments (Microsoft) or retail and consumption (Alibaba,
Amazon), to colonizing flows of information (Google) and communication (Facebook, Tencent) we
outline a broad generic framework relevant to them all. In essence, our ‘Big Tech model’ can be seen as a
two-step process of (i) scaling up into a monopoly position, followed by (ii) mounting rent extraction
escaping market pressures.
According to Srnicek (2016), digital platforms share four characteristics. First, they function as
intermediary infrastructures that bring different user groups together whether as users/buyers and
developers/sellers in the Apple App Store, or as private individuals who build their own content on social
media like Facebook. Second, platforms thrive on network effects, whereby the larger the platform’s size
or user base becomes, the more data, rent, and/or value can be extracted. Third, this why platforms aim to
maximize user engagement for the purpose of collecting data, meaning that platforms are designed to get
‘users’ hooked. Fourth and finally, Big Tech platforms make use of intrafirm cross-subsidization to
expand their reach and user base. This is why the likes of Facebook and Tencent offer their services for
‘free’, while Alibaba and Amazon (and their financiers) have habitually accepted financial losses to
increase market share, and hence network effects. Indeed, an appetite for sustained loss-making to gain
market share is a defining characteristic of (aspiring) digital platforms, with the world’s largest
technology-focused venture capital fund Softbank’s Vision Fund – playing an important role (Boyka
2020). In contrast to short-term shareholder value orientations of the financialized company of the 1990s,
today’s phenomenon is what Rahman and Thelen (2019) see as the new ‘patient capital’ – one willing to
‘lose’ money in the short- and medium-term to maximize shareholder value over the long haul. Put
differently, the new patient capital anticipates and accelerates the socio-technical transition, expecting
returns when scale is reached and the platform assumes a leading role within the new socio-technical
system. As Birch and Cochrane (2021: 2) note:
Big Tech ecosystems are important techno-economic sites of new and emerging forms of digital
rentiership … reflecting debates in STS and cognate fields about the importance of unpacking
economic rents as a form of social practice
In their own ways, the world’s Big Techs have progressively come to control and operate a series of
different monopolies. Although quantifying and qualifying monopoly power remains contested
(UNCTAD 2018), at a general level monopoly power exists when a single corporation (or a handful of
collaborating corporations) wields wide-ranging influence in specific economic domains. Such influence
allows monopolies to extract significant rents, which Christophers (2019: 2) defines as ‘income derived
from the ownership, possession or control of scarce assets and under conditions of limited or no
competition’. Google and Facebook typically extract rents through advertising, whereas other Big Tech
companies charge sellers for conducting operations on their platforms, whether Amazon or Alibaba
through sales commissions, or Apple or Tencent charging fees from developers for selling apps via their
platforms (see Birch and Cochrane 2021 for a classification of Big Tech rents).
Overall, tech monopolies are about control rather than ownership, for example by becoming the
foundational infrastructure within a particular sector or service, through which prices and terms can be
set, markets shaped, and a company’s own products or services can be promoted (Dolata 2019; Rahman
and Thelen 2019). In a self-reinforcing feedback loop, digital rent extraction is augmented by capitalizing
upon ‘gatekeeper power, leveraging power, and information exploitation power’ (Khan 2018: 331). As
Rahman and Thelen (2019: 4) argue:
[T]his winner take all market dominance offers many avenues for generating returns through
rents while also multiplying the number of stakeholders whose dependence on the platform
makes them potential allies in efforts to defend it against unwelcome regulation. This networked
dominance is what makes platform firms both a revival and a reinvention of classical monopoly
What sounds rather abstract has been unearthed in a number of investigations. In 2020, the US
Congressional Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets detailed just how ‘highly concentrated and
prone to monopolization’ the so-called markets of the American Big Techs are (US Senate Congressional
Subcommittee 2020: 11). By virtue of their control over key platforms and wider ecosystems, they were
found ‘to dictate terms and extract concessions that no one would reasonably consent to in a competitive
market’, and to consolidate their respective positions by ongoing acquisitions designed ‘to neutralize a
competitive threat or to maintain and expand the firm’s dominance’ (ibid.). Similar charges have recently
been leveled against Alibaba and Tencent by the Chinese government. Across the globe, therefore, the
Big Tech model ultimately boils down to overcoming and escaping competitive pressures by increasingly
constructing and governing ‘proprietary markets’ (Staab 2019).
This rise of digital monopolies invites us to rethink the logics of capitalism. On the one hand, ‘there is
really something qualitatively distinct about the forces of production that eat brains, that produce and
instrumentalize and control information’ (Wark 2019: 42). Given these distinct features undergirding the
new socio-technical system, Zuboff (2019) goes as far as claiming that the rise of Big Tech has given rise
to ‘a new logic of accumulation’ known as surveillance capitalism, geared toward data extraction and
behavioral modification. On the other hand, however, critics argue that despite these novelties, data-
hungry Big Tech companies merely augment pre-existing capitalist tendencies (Morozov 2019). What is
new in the digital age is not the tendency towards monopoly, but rather the rampant ‘assetization’ of
digital footprints, turning personal data into datasets, which Big Techs exploit in order to refine their
algorithms and keep an edge over potential competitors (Rikap 2021), and sell their commercial
intelligence to third-party corporate clients (Beauvisage and Mellet 2020).
To Peck and Phillips (2021: 75), placing the socio-technical system captained by Big Tech in the longue
durée perspective of Fernand Braudel, ‘the real home of platform capitalism is the zone of the antimarket,
a murky but dominating layer located above the competition, where it operates as a new machine with an
old purpose’. For those orbiting around the infrastructural core of Big Tech monopolies, the so-called
‘cost of exclusion’ (Feld 2019) for trying to evade the reach of Big Tech rises dramatically, up to the
point where it is nearly impossible to stay clear of it (Foroohar 2019). Through data gathering and
assetization, Big Tech not only accumulates rents but also ‘intellectual monopoly power’ which ‘extends
beyond the market and takes the form of capitalist planning of production and innovation’ (Rikap 2021:
11). This then is giving rise to a data-driven intellectual monopoly capitalism, accumulating ‘knowledge
that was produced as a commons, but that these corporations privately monetize’ (ibid.). As Rikap further
[I]ntellectual monopoly capitalism can be conceived as the stage in capitalism where capital
accumulation (and distribution) is led by a core of intellectual monopolies that base their
accumulation (and power) on their permanent and expanding monopoly (and assetization) of
predated knowledge (ibid., p.10)
There are overlapping concepts to define this changing nature of digitizing capitalism. Birch (2020b: 3),
for example, uses technoscientific capitalism to signify a ‘(re)configuration of a range of things (e.g.,
infrastructure, data, knowledge, bodies) as assets or capitalized property’ – constituting a socio-technical
transition-cum-system which is progressively ‘underpinned by rentiership or the appropriation of value
through ownership and control rights’ (see also Dolata 2018). Accordingly, Birch (2020a: 10) argues that
‘the entanglement of digital technoscience and capitalism has led to an ‘automated neoliberalism in
which markets are configured by digital platforms’. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, further deepening
social and societal reliance on Big Tech, the political ramifications of the new socio-technical system
were already becoming visible, as ‘the rollout of data-driven technologies increasingly requires the
rollback of liberal protections by design’ (Hendrikse 2021: 84), arguably giving rise to what might be
called an automated neo-illiberalism.
Future: The Big Techification of Everything
The world’s largest technology companies have spent at least $264bn buying up potential
rivals worth less than $1bn since the start of 2021 double the previous record registered in
2000 during the dotcom boom (Stacey et al. 2021)
Without meaningful political interventions, the Big Tech companies forming the infrastructural core of
today’s digital socio-technical system are set to captain what we have called ‘the Big Techification of
everything’ over the course of the 2020s (Fernandez et al. 2020: 14), shaped by advances in the fields of
AI, the fifth generation of mobile communication (5G), and the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) –
connecting and operating all kinds of applications and devices in the digital economy (Greenfield 2017).
Given the self-reinforcing market-conquering logics of the Big Tech model, the world’s leading Big
Techs will dominate the tech universe for the time being, with thousands of platforms orbiting around
them, and millions of applications built on top of them all relying on its core infrastructure and paying
rents for doing so.
With each company having cornered its own monopoly whilst trying to expand further in scale and scope,
Big Tech has come to colonize all kinds of socio-technical forms, if not the means of social exchange
broadly defined, overlaying the ways in which people used to interact via digital interfaces. Big Techs
may come to infiltrate communication (Facebook, Tencent) and information (Alphabet); work (Microsoft)
and consumption (Alibaba, Amazon). In setting the standards for software toolkits (Google’s Android,
Apple’s iOS) and programs (Microsoft’s Office 365), and spearheading the development of the hardware
to enable exchange (Apple’s iPhone), Big Tech has become the ‘obligatory passage point’ for all types of
exchange in the digital economy (Bassens and Van Meeteren 2015). Big Tech is at the center of a new
socio-technical system, functioning as its core operating system, subjecting the rest of the world to its
intrusive control drift and rent-seeking logics.
Amongst others, with the new socio-technical system anchoring the platformization of capitalism, we
anticipate that scholars will increasingly direct their attention to what might be labelled the platform state.
Braun (2020) has studied how central banks exert power through financial markets, creating various
interdependencies between public and private domains and interests. In similar fashion, the socio-
technical system’s infrastructural core is continuously refined through data extraction and analysis,
accumulating more rent and power in a self-reinforcing feedback loop (Santesteban and Longpre 2020),
augmenting the tech dependencies of states. The coronavirus pandemic has seen governments worldwide
come to rely on the services of Big Tech, whilst Donald Trump’s social media ban underscores the extent
to which Big Tech effectively polices the digitized public sphere. That said, notwithstanding actual
Palantir-powered policing in the US, we arguably need to redirect our gaze towards Beijing to fully grasp
how Big Tech’s infrastructural power becomes interdigitated with political control, revealing the
totalitarian capabilities of the digital socio-technical system (Hendrikse 2021). This brings us to the
geopolitical angle of Big Tech and the geo-economic, military and technological rivalry between the US
and China, which promises to sharpen over the decade to come.
The disruptive potential of Big Tech is also visible in existing multilateral and bilateral treaties on trade
and investment. Amongst others, the ways in which platforms monetize their digital operations are not
compatible with the principles that were created to regulate corporations in the analogue or ‘real’ world.
For example, Big Tech is at odds with the existing cross-border allocation of tax rights, seeing Big Tech
companies making extensive use of offshore financial centers (Fernandez and Hendrikse 2020). How to
tax Big Tech remains subject to fierce diplomatic contestation, although the recent G7 agreement on a
global minimum tax for multinationals offers a glimpse of what might be underway. The speed at which
the new socio-technical system has developed into a focal point on the stock market, in political
communication, in geopolitics and daily life sharply contrasts with the much slower pace at which
political institutions and civil society have been able to grasp the transformative nature of these
companies. Big Tech’s opacity has so far provided it with an advantage and left regulators to play catch-
up. However, on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention China, we are now seeing signs of change.
Lawmakers are seeking to rein in the mounting power of Big Tech, before the socio-technical system
absorbs the authority of (democratically-elected) governments. Again, these developments are
reminiscent of earlier transformative epochs, not least the second half of the nineteenth century. Back
then, new means of transportation and communication came to remodel the socio-technical system of
yesteryear, in gales of ‘creative destruction’, resulting in excessive wealth and power in the hands of the
so-called Robber Barons. Then, as now, existing regulations failed to counteract this new tech-driven
regime centered on monopolies, sparking a popular backlash bringing the Gilded Age to an end. As such,
the past also suggests how to approach the Big Tech Barons of today’s New Gilded Age, which at
minimum requires a serious update of the outdated competition and tax policies to rein in Big Tech.
Our societies urgently need to reflect on the possible ways in which we can rein in the looming ‘Big
Techification of everything’, going beyond free-market imperatives to break up the Big Tech monopolies,
or simply break open their data treasure chests. We need to contemplate the ways in which consumers or
users might reclaim ownership over data as citizens, ideally short-circuiting the core operating logics of
surveillance capitalism: one way might be to embrace open source solutions to circumvent Big Tech
enclosure; another way is to take the infrastructural core of Big Tech into public hands altogether,
recognizing them for the crucial public utilities they are. In any case, we urgently need to come to terms
with the ways which Big Tech has come to captain the socio-technical system of our age, and consider
rewriting its codes to appropriate its spoils for more meaningful ends.
This contribution has sought to trace and qualify the rise past, present and future of Big Tech, framed
and understood as a socio-technical transformation-cum-system. First, we sketched the beginnings of the
socio-technical transition, culminating in ‘the Big Tech Bang’ at the turn of the millennium, giving birth
to what today are the world’s leading tech companies. Next, we sketched the contours of ‘the Big Tech
Model’ undergirding the new socio-technical system, based on generating network effects to facilitate
rent extraction, whose logics have since spread throughout economy and society, transforming pre-
existing industries, products and services, as well as their underlying socio-technical practices and
structures. Without meaningful change, we subsequently argued that the intrusive control drift and rent-
seeking logics driving the new socio-technical system will lead to ‘the Big Techification of everything’,
invoking dystopian prospects, and reflected on possible avenues to halt this development.
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We selected the world’s leading Big Techs on the basis of their market capitalization in December 2020, resulting
in seven leading Big Tech companies, five of which are headquartered in the US, Alphabet (Google), Apple,
Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, and two in China, Alibaba and Tencent (Fernandez et al. 2020: 8).
We are indebted to Michiel van Meeteren, who sketched the original contours of this figure.
... In this article, 'Big Tech' refers to an exclusive set of multinational corporations dominating information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital consumer services who jointly form 'the infrastructural core' (Van Dijck, Poell, and de Waal 2018, 12-15) of the digital economy. In light of Big Tech's relentless accumulation of socioeconomic power-giving rise to 'the Big Techification of everything' (Hendrikse et al. 2022)-recent years have seen growing distrust among policymakers and regulators worrying about the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of 'platform capitalism' or 'surveillance capitalism' (Srnicek 2017;Zuboff 2019). The pandemic narrowed the lens on Big Tech's monopolistic power, giving way to legal investigations, such as the US Senate Hearings under the Trump administration followed by the Biden administration appointing key critics to influential regulatory roles. ...
... A burgeoning body of research from various disciplines has accompanied the rise of Big Tech, shedding light on an industry whose operations have long been shrouded in mystery (e.g., Bartlett 2018;Foroohar 2019;Srnicek 2017;Zuboff 2019). This research has underscored the need to understand Big Tech as corporations, by which we mean profit-driven private enterprises embedded in financialized capitalism, operating and controlling sociotechnical systems (Hendrikse et al. 2022). In the past, attentive observers have described Big Tech as 'the apex of financialization' (Foroohar 2019), typically referring to financial asset holdings and share repurchases. ...
... What began as a booming sector during the 1990s ended up in the turmoil of the dotcom crisis at the turn of the millennium (Feng et al. 2001). But while wreaking havoc financially, this 'double crisis' (Perez 2002) accelerated the deployment or roll-out of Big Tech proper Hendrikse et al. 2022;Rahman and Thelen 2019;Staab 2019). The Chinese internet developed later but also much faster. ...
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Building on the notion of corporate financialization, this article analyzes the financial dynamics of the world’s largest digital platforms over the period 2000–2020: Alibaba, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, and Tencent. These “Big Tech” corporations jointly form the infrastructural core of the digital economy. Taking cues from critical media studies and political economy, we probe their financial statements according to three stylized indicators of corporate financialization: (i) expanding financial assets and debt; (ii) augmenting asset structures, with intangible assets in the form of goodwill ballooning alongside tangible capital; and (iii) maximizing shareholder value. Our findings point to commonalities among the ‘avantgarde of digital capitalism’, where feedback loops between mounting market dominance, data extraction, and above-average profits have been successfully leveraged with key tools of corporate financialization to accelerate Big Tech’s infrastructural dominance across economy and society.
... Financial incumbents, meanwhile, mobilize FinTech to ward off 'disruption' by start-ups and have installed proprietary innovation ecosystems that seek to re-intermediate digital financial services (Hendrikse et al., 2018). Finally, 'BigTech' firms with US and Chinese moorings Hendrikse et al., 2021), who exhibit an unrivalled capacity in operating digital technologies, are key entrants into the domain of finance, especially in the domain of payments. Accordingly, Big Techs specifically targeting financial services are increasingly known as 'TechFins' in the emergent academic literature -a development spearheaded by China's Alibaba and Tencent (e.g., Arslanian and Fischer, 2019;Tanda and Schena, 2019). ...
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Spearheaded by major technology companies (Big Tech), digital platforms have rapidly become key infrastructures for accumulation under global financialized capitalism, with consumer convenience and underlying practices of data collection, control and analysis giving rise to platform finance. While financial institutions are partnering with financial technology (FinTech) start-ups to digitally enclose customers, American and Chinese Big Techs increasingly mobilize their platforms to offer payment services, next to expanding their platformed services to financial incumbents. Observing the growing dependence of finance on American Big Tech platforms, this paper investigates how the shift toward platform finance in the European Union (EU) unfolds as a state-mediated and power-laden process between mostly ‘domestic’ (EU) financial incumbents and ‘foreign’ (non-EU) Big Tech firms. The starting point of the analysis is the European Strategy for Data launched by the European Commission in 2020. Through document analysis, we reconstruct the circulation of code words within ‘the Brussels Bubble’ in anticipation of- and in direct response to the proposal. We find that, despite its implication in the global financial crisis, incumbent EU finance presents itself as a fix for non-EU platform domination by Big Tech. The ‘technological sovereignty’ of the EU is marshalled by incumbent finance to defend market share as would-be pan-European digital financial champions. The Big Tech ‘threat’ is thereby transformed into an argument for strategic deregulation and forced data sharing by Big Tech for the sake of maintaining a ‘level playing field’. The outcome of these processes of strategic coupling is an alignment between the interests of EU data protection and the commercial interests of platformizing European banks.
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This paper expands on the notion neo-illiberalism, signifying a symbiosis between neoliberal capitalism and variegated illiberal nationalisms, offering deeper reflections on its geopolitics, key drivers, and conceptual puzzles. It is argued that the West has entered an age of political illiberalization, replicating political operating logics of variegated illiberal(izing) regimes elsewhere , corroding domestic institutions and the western-dominated international liberal order, constituting an historic geopolitical shift. Although centrist parties have been variably attracted to the far right, particularly seeing center-right parties reinvent themselves as nationalist challengers to the 'globalist' status quo, in power they mostly radicalize the neoliberal encasement of capital, transforming a range of liberal-democratic institutions, procedures, and rights into illiberal political fortifications. Neoliberalism's illiberal mutation has been realized amidst the intersections of rampant financial offshoring and digitization defining contemporary capitalism , allowing billionaire-class factions to 'hack' liberal-democratic governments and operating systems. With the rollout of data-driven technologies increasingly requiring the rollback of liberal protections by design, the fusion of digitizing capitalism and illiberal nationalisms is increasingly escaping accepted notions of liberalism.
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In contemporary global capitalism, the most powerful corporations are innovation or intellectual monopolies. The book’s unique perspective focuses on how private ownership and control of knowledge and data have become a major source of rent and power. The author explains how at the one pole, these corporations concentrate income, property and power in the United States, China, and in a handful of intellectual monopolies, particularly from digital and pharmaceutical industries, while at the other pole developing countries are left further behind. The book includes detailed empirical mappings of how intellectual monopolies develop and transform knowledge from universities and open-source collaborations into intangible assets. The result is a strategy that combines undermining the commons through privatization with harvesting from the same commons. The book ends with provoking reflections to tilt the scale against intellectual monopoly capitalism and arguing that desired changes require democratic mobilization of workers and citizens at large. This book represents one of the first attempts to capture the contours of an emerging new era where old perspectives lead us astray, and the old policy toolbox is hopelessly inadequate. This is true for the idea that the best, or only, way to promote innovation is to transform knowledge into private property. It is also true for anti-trust policies focusing exclusively on consumer prices. The formation of global infrastructures that lead to natural monopolies calls for public rather than private ownership. Scholars and professionals from the social sciences and humanities (in particular economics, sociology, political science, geography, educational science and science and technology studies) will enjoy a clear and all-embracing depiction of innovation dynamics in contemporary capitalism, with a particular focus on asymmetries between actors, regions and topics. In fact, its topical issue broadens the book’s scope to those curious about how innovation networks shape our world.
Technical Report
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This report unpacks the notion 'Big Tech', and investigates the financial numbers behind the operations of the world's largest Big Tech companies, five of which are headquartered in the US - Alphabet (Google), Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft - and two in China, namely Alibaba and Tencent. At the time of writing, each of the seven firms’ market capitalisation stood above US$500 billion, in some cases surpassing US$1 trillion (= US$1,000 billion), or even approaching US$2 trillion. These sums are not only unmatched against companies from other sectors, such as oil & gas or pharmaceuticals, but they also help distinguish the seven companies – Big Tech’s ‘infrastructural core’ – from smaller tech firms, which typically rely on their infrastructures.
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In this article, we add research on technical integration and dependency to the theories of platformization. Our research seeks to understand how platforms have been able to technically integrate themselves into the fabric of the mobile ecosystem, transforming the economic dynamics that allow these largely enclosed entities to compete. We therefore want to consider platforms as service assemblages to account for the material ways in which they have decomposed and recomposed themselves for developers, enabling them to shift the economic dynamics of competition and monopolization in their favor. This article will argue that this shift in the formation of platform monopolies is being brought about by the decentralization of these services, leading to an overall technical integration of the largest digital platform such as Facebook and Google into the source code of almost all apps. We present new digital methodologies to surface these relations and material conditions of platforms. These methodologies offer us a whole new toolkit to investigate how decentralized services depend on each other and how new power relations are formed.
The pre-crisis rise and post-crisis resilience of European repo and securitization markets represent political victories for the interests of large banks. To explain when and how finance wins, the literature emphasizes lobbying capacity (instrumental power) and the financial sector’s central position in the economy (structural power). Increasingly, however, finance also enjoys infrastructural power, which stems from entanglements between specific financial markets and public-sector actors, such as treasuries and central banks, which govern by transacting in those markets. To demonstrate the analytical value of this perspective, the article traces how the European Central Bank (ECB), motivated by monetary policy considerations, has shaped post-crisis financial policymaking in the EU. It shows that the ECB has played a key part in fending off a financial transaction tax on repos and in shoring up and rebuilding the securitization market. With market-based forms of state agency on the rise, infrastructural entanglement and power shed new light on the politics of finance.
The core contradiction in neoliberalism (studies) is that markets are organised and require significant bureaucratic coordination and governance. In light of the increasingly technoscientific nature of contemporary capitalism, it is important to examine exactly how markets are organised and their governance configured by digital processes. In this article, I argue that the entanglement of digital technoscience and capitalism has led to an 'automated neoliberalism' in which markets are configured by digital platforms, personal lives are transformed through the accumulation of personal data, and social relations are automated through algorithms, distributed electronic ledgers, and rating systems. Two issues arise as a result of these changes: first, are markets being automated away, in that market exchange no longer underpins social organisation? And second, does individual and social reflexivity problematise techno-economic automation, in that new platforms, data assets, ranking algorithms, etc. are all dependent on individuals telling the 'truth'? My aim in this article is to answer these questions and to consider the political implications of automated neoliberalism and our reflexive enrolment in it.
Data-hungry applications are central to the largest online platforms. Using a novel approach that leverages data science to inform the economics, we demonstrate how data is a source of market power. We highlight the importance of data heterogeneity, whereby small feature differences translate into large value differences. We examine how concept drift, the existence of a nonstationary relationship between the predictive and target variables, implies that access to a continuous stream of data is competitively advantageous. We analyze how an information bottleneck and high sample complexity in existing applications lead to increasing returns to data. Finally, we show how user interaction control enables personalization that raises switching costs. The combined effect is a potent data barrier to entry that endows substantial market power to only the largest online platforms. Competition policy should focus on enabling entrants unfettered access to vast continuous data streams similar to those available to platform incumbents.
Beherrschten vor 20 Jahren noch Industriekonglomerate, Energiekonzerne und Banken die Rangliste der wertvollsten Unternehmen, wurden diese längst von Internetgiganten wie Google, Apple, Amazon und Tencent abgelöst. Digitale Technik ist allgegenwärtig: Wir tragen Hochleistungsrechner in unseren Taschen herum, Waschmaschinen können sich mit dem Internet verbinden. Doch erschöpft sich darin das Neue am digitalen Kapitalismus? Das Buch beleuchtet den digitalen Kapitalismus aus unterschiedlichen Perspektiven, um ihn präziser auf den Begriff zu bringen. Er zeigt, wie digitale Überwachungs- und Bewertungspraktiken in immer mehr Bereiche der Wirtschaft vordringen und dabei die soziale Ungleichheit verschärfen. Das Spezifische am digitalen Kapitalismus, ist die Herausbildung »proprietärer Märkte«: Kam es früher darauf an, Dinge herzustellen und mit Gewinn zu verkaufen, geht es im Zeitalter der Unknappheit um das Eigentum an den Märkten selbst.